About 10 days ago, Leanna Hafften called me and asked if I would be willing to write a short piece for the service today. She explained that she was looking for a mother who had raised her children to adulthood to write a letter to her younger self – a letter conveying what I would say to encourage the woman I was as a young mother, in light of what I know now. I thought about it for a few seconds, and then sort of stumbled through my reply.
“I’m sorry,” Leanna said, “I couldn’t really hear you. You’re breaking up.”
“No,” I explained. “I’m not breaking up. I’m breaking down.”
You see, when I remember my days as a young mother, I’m transported back to a time of insecurity, when I was overwhelmed by my inadequacy for the responsibilities placed before me, and I was often hounded by sense of failure. It’s not easy to look back. But as I told Leanna, I need to do this. I need to look back, because in doing so, I see so clearly God’s sufficiency, his faithfulness, and his power to redeem my failures.
So here is my letter to my younger self.
Looking back through the years, I see you. Twenty-two years old, sitting alone in the hospital room after Steve has gone home, keenly aware that your life has changed dramatically with the birth of your son. You gaze into his dark, serious eyes, touch his thick black hair, stroke his cheek, inhale his “fresh from heaven” baby scent. And you’re overcome with joy, with relief, and – let’s be honest — with a huge sense of accomplishment at having delivered a baby (as if you were the first woman to ever do so!) But mingled with the joy and awe is a vague sense of terror. You have no idea what your new life will look like. You think you’ve become a mother, but what you don’t know yet – what it will take you years to learn – is that it’s not giving birth that makes someone a mother. I’m sure of this now, because I know many women who have never given birth, but who are loving and brave and creative and sacrificial mothers.
No, it’s not giving birth that makes a woman a mother. It is learning to survive – and even embrace with gratitude – the everyday sameness of caring for another human being, more than you care for yourself. The laundry, the meals, the discipline, the chauffeuring, the appointments, the lessons… Even when you’re sick, or bone-weary, or feeling like your real life has somehow passed you by. It’s loving your children, even when they can’t – or won’t – love you in return. It’s dreaming dreams for them, and then having the grace to let them choose other dreams. It’s learning to teach them the truth – about God, about themselves in relationship to God – and knowing when to speak directly and loudly, and when it’s better to refrain from speaking. (Oh, that’s a hard one!) It’s learning that all of this requires you to be committed for the long haul, constantly planning and preparing and thinking and trying to keep one step ahead of whatever may lie beyond the bend, praying for each precious child God entrusts you with – to hold on, to hope — and then (oh, it feels so suddenly) to open your hand, to let go, to release, to applaud, to weep, to sometimes clamp your lips shut and avert your eyes from the disaster that you fear may await them, and to pray, pray, pray harder than you ever have before.
Jane, do you remember the poster on the wall in your second grade classroom? It showed children engaged in various educational pursuits, underneath the slogan, “Learning by Doing.” The idea was that no mere textbook learning was sufficient to prepare children to live well-rounded lives, and children must learn by practicing (doing) the very skills they were being taught. So, before you begin this exhilarating and treacherous journey called motherhood, I want to tell you, dear younger Jane, what you will only ever learn by doing.
First, I want you to know how to fail well, for you will fail. No matter how well prepared you think you are, no matter how many other mothers give you advice, no matter how well you think you know your children, you will make many mistakes along the way. Your temper will flare, words will fly from your mouth that you immediately wish you could call back. You will fail to set appropriate boundaries and your children will suffer the consequences. Out of fear, you will say no when you should have said yes, and yes when you should have said no. You will second guess yourself and heap coals of criticism upon your own head. You will want to resign from motherhood because you are weary, you feel inept, and no one respects you anyway.
What’s more, your children will fail and disappoint you. They will fail to live up to your expectations. Sometimes they will rebel against your authority. After you have poured years of your life into theirs, they will sometimes do or say things that leave you feeling humiliated, or mocked, or even worse – irrelevant. Other times they will try their hardest to succeed at something good and noble, and yet will fail to accomplish it – and you will feel their sorrow, the bitterness of their failure in your own soul – and you’ll feel sting of your own powerlessness to fix things.
But what I want to you know and remember, young Jane, is that God will never fail. His mercies are new every morning. He is rich in mercy, and he loves to shower his mercy on you and your children. His power is made perfect in your weakness. He wants you to run boldly to his throne of grace. In his grace, he orchestrates our failures – and our children’s failures – so that we can begin to understand how desperately we need him and can find him faithful. So don’t fear your failures or let them define you. Take them to the Lord. He promises that we will receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Another thing I want you to know is that God loves you. This is an elemental truth that you must remember on those days when you feel unloved, or unlovely, or unlovable. God’s love isn’t rational. It’s not transactional. It’s not dependent on your being a “good mother” with “good kids.” He loves you because He is Love. It will take you a lifetime to understand this, but it will make your mothering a great deal easier if you’re willing to receive God’s love. He won’t love you any more if you try to be strong and independent and pretend that you don’t need anyone. You don’t earn points for self-sufficiency.
A few years from now, on a Sunday morning when you have two children under four, your pastor’s wife is going to say to you, “I’m praying for you. I know it’s hard to be a young mother with a husband who is traveling a lot.” Jane, you will save yourself a lot of grief if you don’t brush her off, as I did, and say, “I’m fine.” Trust me. You are not fine. You need to be honest about how you’re struggling. You need to let people pray for you. You need the community of believers God has placed you in. I could have experienced God’s love more fully through that community, if I’d only realized and admitted how much I needed it. And I can’t help but wonder who I might have been able to encourage and pray for, if I’d been willing to receive the love of God myself.
Not only does God love you, he loves your children more than you do – he loves them perfectly. Remember this when you fail to love your children well. God can — and will — redeem our failures and use them for his glory if we place them — and ourselves — in his hands.
Ultimately, Jane, mothering isn’t about you, or your children. It’s about God and his goodness, his faithfulness, his forgiveness, his love. The question isn’t, “Does God love me?” Jesus answered that question on the cross. The question you must ask yourself daily is, “Will I love God, and will I trust him to lead me, to empower me, and to forgive me when I fail?” The more you do this, the more you will become the kind of mother you long to be.
May God bless you on this journey, Jane. Remember, you are not alone.